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20th March 2016 Palm Sunday - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
18 March 2016

Readings

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29

This psalm belongs to the feast of Tabernacles with verses 1-4 being a thanksgiving of the people while 5-21 are an individual thanksgiving and 22-29 are a mixture of motives.[1]

What is important is that the psalm is performed at the temple gate and it is not hard to imagine Jesus joining the procession that was going to the temple for a festival rather than the people specifically cheering for Jesus.  As with so many instances the gospel writer is using tradition to express meaning about Jesus rather than give historical detail as we might expect.

Luke 19: 28-40

Craddock sees verse 28 as concluding the previous major section of the gospel he calls the travel section so the entry into Jerusalem, and what happens there, begins at verse 29.[2]

A distinctive feature of Luke’s gospel compared to the other synoptic gospels is that Jerusalem is the destination.  In Matthew and Mark the disciples return to Galilee after Jesus’ death but in Luke they stay to receive the Holy Spirit.  Therefore this entrance scene is even more significant.

A distinctive feature of Luke’s account of the entry into Jerusalem is that it only involves Jesus and his disciples.  Disciples secure the colt, disciple’s place Jesus on the colt, disciples called him the king who comes in the name of the Lord, echoing Zechariah 9:9 rather than quoting it as Matthew and John do.  There is no large crowed, Jesus is honoured and praised by his followers and this is not the group which turns cold and later calls for Jesus’ crucifixion. Luke makes no mention of hosannas, of palms, or branches, all of which have nationalistic overtones.  Luke seems to want to bring a more universal Jesus to Jerusalem.  The final difference is the Pharisees who object to the activity of the disciples.  They may have feared the reaction of Roman authorities or they may have been concerned for Jesus’ safety.[3]

Sermon

This is a story we read year after year from all four gospels that have minor variations as each gospel writer builds their own perspective into the core story.

Likewise various commentators have added historical perspective to the imagery woven into the story. 

The Palm Sunday story is an episode of anticipation.  The anticipation of the crowds who expect a miracle as Jesus enters Jerusalem.  There is also anticipation for both the gospel writer and his readers as we anticipate the climax of the journey to the cross and the resurrection which proclaims new beginnings and a new understanding of humanity’s relationship to the divine.

As we read this Psalm Sunday story once again this year we do so as we anticipate moving in and opening our new complex and the new beginnings for the life and mission for St Albans Uniting.

The allusion to Zechariah nine verse nine is still clear although not quoted as it is in Mark and Matthew and we can look up the verse for ourselves. 

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

Lo, your king comes to you:

Triumphant and victorious is he,

Humble and riding on a donkey,

On a colt, the foal of a donkey.  (Zechariah 9:9)

Tradition has it that the king who rides on a donkey is a king of peace rather than the triumphant general king who enters a conquered city on a war horse.  There are passages in the Old Testament that show warrior kings riding donkeys.  However the fact that the story is influenced by the poem from Zechariah which contains the line ‘Humble and riding on a donkey’ tends to suggest that the peaceful king is the claim the story is making.

Justo González makes the interesting point that Jesus triumphal entry leads straight to the temple which exactly parallels Josephus’s account of Alexander’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  On that occasion Alexander went and offered sacrifice under the guidance of the high priest and so the high priest was seen as betraying the faith of Israel.   Jesus went to the temple but not to offer sacrifice.  Jesus went to cleanse the temple which exerted the authority Luke believes Jesus has to restore the faith of Israel.  It is enforcing that authority in the confrontation with the merchants and money changers which probably leads to Jesus’ death.[4]

However it is the nature of parades, that within the spectrum from conquering hero to humble servant of the dispossessed, there is always a great expectation of prospective leadership but that excitement quickly wanes once a new leader is installed. 

The excitement we see at Donald Trump’s rallies is a classic example of people projecting their hopes onto a popular figure and imagining him as their ideal leader.

They have seen his no nonsense bullying on the TV show The Apprentice and he has been able to amass the sort of fortune they can only dream about.  He has vilified those people they see has different, those people they imagine are taking their jobs and ruining their neighbourhoods.  They are certain that he will never take away their guns.  He will preserve their right to shoot the bad guy, or be shot in the back by their four year old child who finds a loaded pistol on the floor of the car.  I am reminded of John Clark as Fred Dagg singing, ‘If I ruled the world, one or two people are going to have to sort out their ideas.’

However elected or installed by conquest rulers have to rule and don’t always have the same agenda as those who support them.  The more violent their campaign to gain their position the more violence they need to protect that status once attained. 

Even democratically elected presidents have to listen to their finance minister, and keep attuned to ever shifting public opinion or make sometimes fruitless efforts to shift it.  Our government sought support for extra secret surveillance by alluding that hordes of young New Zealand Moslem women were travailing to Syria and Iraq to be Jihad brides.  As it turned out there were two or three who were New Zealand born and living in Australia.  Anjum Rahman, who spoke to our Community Comment, spoke on Radio New Zealand and the evening television news on behalf of the Islamic Women's Council.  Anjum told the government to stop fear-mongering.  Unfortunately fear mongering is one of the tricks governments use stay in power and there are even parades of hate that support such quests for power by inducing fear.   

But reading our Gospel Palm Sunday story we remember that, like so many leadership parades, the triumphant procession into Jerusalem is in reality a procession towards rejection and crucifixion.  

But Jesus did not claim any crown or recognised leadership position and it was his servant role, that in resurrection, gripped the enthusiasm of his followers and changed the world. 

In fact his reluctance to lead a violent revolution may well have had an influence on the mob who cried ‘Crucify him’. 

History shows that Israel at that time was boiling towards violent revolution and some of those who spread their cloaks on the ground may well have seen him as the warrior messiah, the new David who would ride into Jerusalem and declare himself king.  His entering Jerusalem would call forth the support of a band of invincible heavenly warriors to slaughter and disperse the Romans and put the children of Abraham in charge of the world. 

Luke would know that was likely to have been the motive of the subsequent rebel army who sought the protection of the temple prior to its destruction in AD70.  They likely believed God would not allow a gentile army to enter the temple but the Romans sacked the temple and decimated the population sheltering there. 

However from the gospel writer’s perspective the veil of the temple had been torn in two with Jesus’ death on the cross and a new relationship between God and humanity was born through the resurrected Christ.  The true messianic parade was the Palm Sunday procession by Jesus the servant messiah, the prince of peace. 

Luke, and indeed Jesus, may have had a vision of that incident as a procession on a mission to restore the faith of Israel.  But by the time Luke wrote his Gospel the followers of Jesus had moved beyond Israel to include the gentile world.  However another strong theme of Luke’s Gospel was a concern for, and empowerment of, the poor.  Therefore we can imagine that riding with Jesus on the donkey are the hopes of the oppressed and exploited peoples and the oppressed and exploited individuals.  Of course those marginalised people may well have seen Jesus bringing them justice through violent confrontation and heavenly support.  In fact they would have had no other model to hope for.  Governments in their time were only ever changed violently. 

However resurrection reflection would have revealed that Jesus’ ministry demonstrated some realisation of that hope for marginalised peoples and his mission journey carried that hope through his suffering and death.  It is within that hope that Luke’s community found its mission and through his gospel Luke passes that mission to us.

Yet that tension between the servant donkey riding prince of peace and the noisy parade that idolises worldly success still exists in today’s church.  Loud music with repetitive praise and filled auditoriums are considered successful and small churches with aging congregations are often frowned upon. Especially if such churches keep their mission alive though interest earned on past consolidation of redundant assets.  Loyal Christians are expected to succeed in the world because a just God must surely reward the faithful. 

But still the gospel donkey plods towards the cross and in a faith of tension and paradox large churches have extraordinary community facing mission and stand tall on social justice issues.  Small churches who appear to be inward facing and only interested in themselves inspire their children to life changing and community transforming careers.  From all expressions of Christianity there are also those others of whom Shirley Murray writes:

There are others on this journey

those who long and pray and search,

heave the stones to free the structures,

love the Christ and leave the Church.[5]

Truly all expressions of Church and those influenced by the church can join the parade and not only have a right but a duty to cry out:

‘Open to me the gates of righteousness,

that I may enter through them

and give thanks to the LORD. (Psalm118: 19)

That will be our thoughts as we enter our new building on the 21st of May, our thoughts when the parade of church leaders walks up the isle with the call from the first people to migrate to this land.

We will come into a new complex that has been designed for our unique community facing mission and that day will indeed be a grand parade. 

Our prayer is that it will also a journey towards a resurrection, a plodding new beginning journey that faith has called us to.  As we have faithfully followed our calling to be Christ in the Community with no strings attached so God has lead us through planning and permission gaining, time when we have felt more like the donkey than the Christ. 

We have seen the destruction of the old and the new rise up from the mud and the snow.  Now we plod towards a new challenge of mission in this place and in both trepidation and excitement we look towards the 21st and 22nd of May when we must surely allow ourselves the privilege of crying out:

This is the day that the lord has made;

let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118 24)

 

[1] A.A Anderson Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans, London: Morgan & Scott, 1972) p.797

[2] Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009),p.223.

[3] ibid., pp.226-228

[4] Justo L. González Luke (Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press 2010), p.228.

[5] Shirley Murray, ‘Faith Has Set Us On A Journey’ Faith Forever Singing No.14

 

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